Friday, June 20, 2014

ISIS and Responsibility

Summertime used to promise a dry spell in the news cycle-- but the last two years it has been the season when societies crumble and blogs arise from the ashes.  This time last year, it was the NSA/Snowden scandal that was hitting the airwaves-- this summer it is the catastrophe in Iraq.  I guess the hot weather, and the occasional flashes of thirst that strike us as we motor from one air-conditioned location to the next, remind us of the vast parched lands that we are still sort of at war with in the Middle East.  Of course, the people of Iraq don't need much reminding.  Their exposure to car bombs and shootings is not governed by the vagaries of the news cycle.  Nor would the recent ISIS disaster take them so completely by surprise, the way it shocked American readers by its apparent suddenness (myself very much included).  The sectarian civil war in Iraq, often dated strictly to 2006, never really ended for them-- 8,000 people died in Iraq last year from sectarian atrocities and street terrorism, according to Bob Dreyfuss, and the numbers will be much higher in 2014.

So far, the commentariat has admirably resisted reducing the current crisis in Iraq to a case of white hats vs. black hats.  They have been forced into this uncharacteristically restrained attitude, one suspects, by the fact that backing Nouri al-Maliki in this fight means siding with the interests of Iran and Bashar al-Assad, not to mention the autocratic and nationalistic Maliki himself, and the Shiite militants to whom he is tacitly allied.  Backing ISIS or groups which share its goals, meanwhile, would place the U.S. not only in the usual, and deplorable, position of supporting its corrupt regional ally, Saudi Arabia, but also of sharing an agenda with former Baathists and Saddam Hussein supporters in Iraq, and ultimately acting in concert with Al Qaeda itself, as a Sunni militant group.  Now wouldn't that be a fitting end to the whole inhuman comedy of the "War on Terror"?  Taking the long view, after all, the whole thing started with arming the Taliban in the '80s-- this way it would end with arming Al Qaeda (though it's worth noting that even Al Qaeda appears afraid of the beast it has unleashed in the form of ISIS).

As absurd as it sounds, this latter choice is not too far off from what some of the liberal hawks and Neocons would like us to do. (These opinion-makers are fiercely belying, it must be said, my earlier generalization about the comparative restraint of the commentariat.  That is to say, they are still very much playing the old white and black hats game.)  Roger Cohen, for instance, in the New York Times on Friday was still bravely insisting that "There was a moment in the Syrian conflict when decisive military aid to the opposition could have changed Assad’s calculation."  Meanwhile, the aptly-named Anne-Marie Slaughter has been huffing and snorting in every mainstream news outlet about how Obama needs to "address" the civil war in Syria in order to resolve the crisis in Iraq.  Her advice?: again, support the Syrian opposition.

Yes but the reason that Obama didn't send those tanks and guns to the opposition-- remember?-- is that they would now be in the hands of ISIS in Iraq, where the same liberal hawks and Neocons would have us back Maliki against ISIS, so long as he promised to make his government less willfully sectarian.  If the Slaughters of the world had their way, we'd be arming Peter to kill Paul.  We could keep this civil war going indefinitely by sending weapons to both the opposition in Syria and to Maliki in Iraq at the same time, with guns flowing from Syria to Iraq and back again in an endless feedback loop.

The primary reason that this hadn't happened yet, it must be said, is the resistance of one man: Barack Obama, who doesn't want his second term in office to be defined by starting several more endless wars in the Middle East.  For this dog-tiredness of his, where Middle Eastern ground wars are concerned, Obama deserves rather more gratitude than he usually receives from easily disappointed anti-war types like me.  With regard to Iraq, the man has so far resisted all of the voices who usually prevail in these sorts of situations, and who would have moved pretty much any other politician to military action by now.  I'm not talking so much about the Neocons as about the liberal hawks, the Rices and Powers and Slaughters, who so skillfully deploy the interventionist sleight-of-hand whereby atrocity stories abroad are used to justify atrocity stories of our own enacting.  They have gotten their way many times before, including under the current president, and I don't have the slightest doubt that they would be getting their way right now in Syria and Iraq if Hilary Clinton or John Kerry or anyone else was sitting behind the big red buttons.  If it weren't for Obama, the bombs would already be falling on Nineveh.  None of this makes Obama's drone policy any more savory, of course, but one has to appreciate the small mercies in American foreign policy-- there won't be many.  (UPDATE: Even during the composition of this post, events may have transpired to make me eat these words, but I will leave this paragraph as written for having at least historical interest).

My own -- unsolicited -- advice to America's leaders, now as always, is to devote whatever money they would have spent on drones and bombs on tents, blankets, and food for the refugees instead.  It may be a slow-acting medicine to actually feed and clothe the affected populations of these civil wars, but at least it is medicine rather than poison-- which is what we dumped on Iraq the last time we strove to "liberate" it, as I recall.  Diplomatically, meanwhile, Bob Dreyfuss makes a compelling case that the solution will have to come from some sort of rapprochement between Saudi Arabia, the dominant Sunni power in the region, and Iran, the major Shiite center, who both have a vested interest in the status quo and might inveigle their respective sectarian allies into suing for peace.

It would seem that most of the American people would agree with this plan, even if some very highly-placed and influential voices would view it as shameless accommodationism.  Most people just don't want to get involved again in a major Middle Eastern ground war.  When faced with the knot of sectarian loyalties that places the U.S. and Iran on the same side in one country and the U.S. and Al Qaeda together in another, most Americans will simply throw up their hands in disgust and paralysis.  Circumstances may thus have finally forced people to abandon the white and black hat view of reality, which is certainly a change for the better.

Disguised within this Pontius Pilate response, however, is an even worse attitude-- the old racism which insists that one can't expect any better from "those people" anyways.  Funny how this attitude always proceeds first from the very same people who were most anxious to "free" the people of the Middle East from their despotic rulers a decade ago.  Need we recall Tom Friedman's remarks from last summer, already picked apart on this blog?  "People of the region often blame us," said Tom, "because they either will not or cannot accept their own responsibility for putting things right."  This from a man who rather gleefully participated in dismembering Iraqi society in 2003.  Now he wants Humpty Dumpty to put himself together again.

You see-- when people are first perceived as the pitiable and pliant objects of charity, it is no long step to perceiving them next as contemptible ingrates-- especially when they appear to doubt the beneficence of one's earlier largesse.  There is a scene in Zola's Germinal in which a mining family shows up on the doorstep of a bourgeois household desperately seeking food.  They are offered clothes instead, for which they struggle to express gratitude.  But when they ask for five francs as well, to buy bread and coffee, they are angrily hustled out the door.  I guess a similar dynamic is operating in the sudden turn on the part of the American people from bombastic compassion for the Iraqis to stiff apathy and dislike.

We need to resist this racism as well as the white hat bombast.  One should never be misled into thinking that the sectarian violence in the Middle East is simply due to some ancient characteristic or essential cultural trait on the part of the inhabitants.  It can't all be chalked up to Western malfeasance either, of course.  Militants who blow up children and people in the streets bear ultimate and primary responsibility for the crimes they commit.  But identity politics in the Middle East as elsewhere always rests on certain fictions-- it presents to the world as essential and changeless those traits that are in reality most new.  The "invented tradition" pattern diagnosed by Hobsbawm et al. repeats itself in every corner of the globe, including the Middle East.  If Shiite and Sunni sectarian politics can't just be reduced to the consequences of poverty, imperialism, corruption, and social disorder (drawing to their banner, as they often do, many of the well- and highly-placed members of their respective societies), neither are they rooted in some substantial and timeless element of "Muslim culture."

Identities, like ideologies, are such bizarre protean things.  They present themselves to us as our "true selves" at the very moment they are being imported from something entirely alien.  In his dialogue on "The Decay of Lying," Oscar Wilde insisted that "Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life."  Of course, there's no art involved in these matters of identity and ideology, one way or the other.  But people do play into the models they see around themselves, and then proceed to internalize these models as clues to their true and deepest essence.  Says Wilde:
"Scientifically speaking, the basis of life--the energy of life, as Aristotle would call it--is simply the desire for expression, and Art is always presenting various forms through which this expression can be attained. Life seizes on them and uses them, even if they be to her own hurt."
Admittedly, Wilde's theory leaves undiagnosed why the life force should express itself in one form rather than another, and why in a particular form at a particular moment of history.  But it reminds us that the things we mistake for the most permanent elements of our culture and self may end up the most transient.  If the result of the life-force's given expression is horrific just now, in the Middle East, this fact may tell us something about sectarianism and identity politics, but it tells us very little about the people in the Middle East as a whole, whose life-force has struggled to expression in very different forms in the past, and may do so again in the future.


Curiously, my own life-force is not tugging me at all this time in the direction of military intervention.  This is in contrast to similar occasions in the past on which, even when I most consciously resisted the allure, I feared on some level that the liberal hawks and Neocons might be right this time-- maybe our military really should "do something."  But this week I have felt nothing of the sort.

What I feel instead is a pervasive sense of living of borrowed time, of enjoying stolen luxuries, of driving on someone else's oil.  Looking at my gas gauge today I feel that the chickens really are going to come home to roost this time-- in the form of high energy prices if nothing else.  The truth that is striking me now applies to every tragedy and human catastrophe-- namely, that there is no reason in fairness why some survive and prosper and others suffer and die in this world.   This universal truth, however, is affecting me rather more strongly at present-- I guess because I live very comfortably in the same country that killed half a million Iraqis in a decade-long conflict and set their current civil war in motion.

I've been fighting my way valiantly through Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Presentation this summer -- it is half redundant fantasy and half profound, aphoristic wisdom.  One of Schopenhauer's typically acute half-truths is as follows: "[E]very happiness is only loaned to us for an indefinite time by chance, and can therefore be demanded back in turn within the hour." (Aquila/Carus transl. p. 126).  Some presentiment of this truth is what always makes us feel guilty and uneasy when faced with the incomprehensible loss of human life-- it is what lends reality to the statement that "it could have been us..."

In this case, however, the guilt, and the debt to be called in, are rather more real.  It occurs to one that our country and society won't always be at the top of the international food chain.  When that day arrives, will we be able to say that we wielded wisely and mildly the power we possessed-- that we restrained our instinct for cruelty and violence?  And will we have the right to demand of others what we didn't grant in our time?

1 comment:

  1. As usual an interesting and insightful post. A particularly compelling point on the problem of the supposed inevitability of the Sunni/Shia conflict. If I may ramble:

    I'm a bit more skeptical than you are that Iran and Saudi Arabia have a vested interest in the status quo. Certainly the Saudis benefit from harming Iran and the Iranians benefit from being able to become a valuable powerbroker in the region, gaining favor from the US as long as the crisis lasts. The Kurds particularly gain from the legitimacy that the instability brings, I wonder how long it will be before we again see uninformed American policymakers making noises about the desirability to creating an independent Kurdistan.

    This whole affair has again brought up how little supposed security experts within the American government actually understand about the Middle East. A few weeks ago in one of the major military journals a Colonel was proposing that the United States remake the map of the Middle East, among other things dividing Iraq into three sections. I've heard whispers about how we should be looking at the old "Biden Plan" to chop up Iraq.

    All told I can't see how this ends well. Even disregarding moral considerations (as you know I'm rather weighed down by a pacifist perspective) and working from a realist perspective it really does seem that American military power would not be of much help. That assumes of course that the American public would support any significant military action anyway.

    The comparison of Iraq to Vietnam is of course somewhat cliche, but it is becoming more apt. In both cases the United States created a state that has little claim to legitimacy. Obama has had everyone in the White House read Gordon Goldstein's "Lessons in Disaster" about Vietnam so he understands that an unstable government in South Vietnam was the real problem in that war, hence his insistence on governmental reform as a prerequisite for American military assistance in Iraq. That said the US has floated the idea that the State and Law Coalition should replace Maliki, which may suggest that American policymakers are less aware that replacing the leaders of South Vietnam was one of the less successful parts of our counterinsurgency strategy then.

    Anyway, however you cut it the situation is a mess.